Learning to Appreciate Barry Bonds

I had given up on baseball. I can’t give you the exact dates, but it was somewhere around 2001, when steroid rumors and my burgeoning high school self lost interest in the game.

While high school, and its ability to crush a human being beyond recognition played a part, I was the child that the sportswriters who always wring their hands about morality are always talking about.

Despite being an terrible and overly anxious athlete, I grew up loving baseball. I collected cards, played video games (keeping the stats on yellow legal pads in the days before games could do that work for you), and watched every game that happened to reach the air in the days before MLB.tv. Naturally, for a ten-year-old baseball-obsessed boy, 1997 was the highlight of my life when McGwire and Sosa hit home runs like it was their job. Which, it was. That was their job.

I checked the box scores daily, watched press conferences to marvel at the sheer, terrifying size of McGwire’s biceps, and I’d record Cardinals games onto meticulously labeled VHS tapes. If I still had a VCR, I could pop in #51 against the Mets whenever I’d want.

The point is, McGwire and Sosa were heroes of mine. And don’t bother explaining to a ten-year-old that professional athletes are bad role models–it won’t work.

So by the time that Barry Bonds was making his run at the record in 2003, I was disillusioned and disgusted. It was a known fact that Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and countless others were steroid users. Their numbers were tainted, the game was ruined, what had once been perfect was now a trash dump. It was like learning that your favorite movie was secretly directed by Michael Bay.

And so I gave up on the game. My knowledge of the early 2000s is now a gaping hole, the utility players of that era lost to me. (Wow! Randy Velarde had an .825 OPS for the Rangers in 2001? Insane!)

So when Barry Bonds hit his record breaking 71st and 72nd home run, I wasn’t watching. The TV was on downstairs, but I was in my room, probably listening to the Smiths or making a mix for some girl. I came downstairs, saw the highlights, made a disgusted ‘pfuft’ noise, and went about my life.

For all those years when Bonds was destroying the ball, terrifying pitchers into walking him on an endless loop, I didn’t watch. I regret that now.

This is Barry Bonds’ Baseball-Reference page:

Look at all of those big, bold, beautiful numbers. Those are, somehow, the statistics of an actual human being. This isn’t a video game, this isn’t a simulation, this isn’t what would happen if the platonic ideal of a baseball player was put on Earth. This is what actually happened within the only reality that we know of.

Seven MVPs, Nine OPS titles, 162.5 rWAR.

Between 1992 and 2007, Bonds had an OPS under 1.000 once. It was .999.

Barry Bonds has more intentional walks than the entire history of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise (h/t to @CespedesFamilyBBQ for that statistic.)

Barry Bonds actually holds 24 separate records.

At the age of 42, in Bonds’ last season, he hit Bonds hit 28 home runs with a .480 on-base percentage. Last year, Miguel Cabrera, the best pure hitter in the game, had an OBP of .442.

Only Ted Williams had a better OPS than Bonds in the last season of a career.

You could continue with little statistical nuggets forever, until the Sun burns out and the Earth becomes black like coal.

Yes, Bonds was chemically ‘boosted,’ but so were many of the same players he was competing against and no one put up numbers like that. No one decimated the state of play like he did.

But I didn’t watch any of it. I was disgusted by it. The closest thing to an alien with futuristic technology coming to Earth and using those abilities to play baseball was in the Bay Area and I turned my back on it. And I wish I didn’t.

A cleaner game is a better game and there’s no doubt that Bonds lied and cheated. But that doesn’t mean his performance wasn’t sublime. The other users never reached base 60% of the time as Bonds did at the age of 39. The other players didn’t have the kinetic chain, batting eye, and magical short swing that Barry Bonds did.

You can dislike steroids, you can call Bonds a cheater, but to not give Barry Bonds his due as arguably the greatest player in baseball history, and by far the best of his generation, is simply closing your eyes and pretending it never happened. But it did. And I wish I had been able to appreciate it.

*I will say that my girlfriend, who cares not for baseball, was at Barry Bonds’ 756th home run game. It is one of the great dividing points in our relationship.